Long Beach fails Public Trust Lands
Long Beach coastal development offers cautionary tale on abuse of Public Trust.
By Don May
Tom Politeo/Harbor Vision Task Force
Three uses, Gameworks, Cinemark and Borders, raised the greatest concern regarding the public trust use of tidelands property
HARBOR VISION TASK FORCE MEMBER
While the goal of restoring Long Beach to its former glory is a noble one, the redevelopment projects proposed for its coastal tidelands have a checkered past, one in conflict with serving the public trust. It’s a story we hear too much these days, and yet, in the case of Long Beach, it all started with the best intentions.
In 1960, the Long Beach Pike, located just south of downtown Long Beach, on the east edge of San Pedro Bay, east of where the Los Angeles River meets the ocean, was past its prime. It had been a popular amusement park and resort akin to Venice’s now defunct Pacific Ocean Park. In its heyday, Long Beach’s white-sand playa attracted tourists from around the state. Starting in 1920s, however, Long Beach began filling in area, taking land for a growing port, building the Long Beach Pike and constructing a municipal auditorium.
In the 1960s, voters approved a park bond matched with federal funds from the federal Land and Water Conservation Act. The bond would fill in 113 additional acres, offering a redevelopment site totaling 319 acres.
Twenty-five years of citizen involvement followed, leading to plans for a pedestrian-oriented development, a playa restoration and a visitor-serving, regional park with a lagoon.
But this is where the best intentions came to an end.
In the early 1990s, an alternate development was planned, one that would phase in an Aquarium, a marina, parking structures, and a shopping center which was to be anchored with a large screen movie theater. Amid great controversy, an EIR was approved in 1995.
Then the project got stuck. The plans had veered so far off course that they no longer satisfied serving the “public trust” as is required for coastal tidelands projects. However, municipal planners and commercial developers were undeterred by the constraints of public trust doctrine.
Dating back to Roman times, public trust doctrine arises from the recognition that certain lands are so valuable to the public that they should never be owned by private interests—but should be held by all the people for common use. The state acts as if executor of public trust lands, ensuring that they are used for appropriate public purposes.
Our navigable waterways are one example of lands held in public trust. Passenger and cargo transportation services are a clear example of a valid use of these lands. Our beaches are another example of public trust land. A use that denies public access to the wet sands is an example of a use that clearly is against the public trust.
Between the black and white, there’s a lot of gray—uses that may be in line with the public trust, depending on interpretation. Public dialogue, often between conservationists and developers, helps shape what uses will be acceptable. So do additional understanding we gain about public needs, biology and ecosystems.
Since this debate is a political process, it is important for environmental advocates to understand it and participate in it.
In different roles, the State Lands Commission and Coastal Commission help oversee public trust lands. They ensure that cities like Long Beach do not stray from public trust uses and develop their public trust lands in a way that favors private or even excessively local or provincial interests. The state-wide public interest must be served on public trust lands.
This was the sticking point for Long Beach project. The city and developers wanted to put in a movie theater, arcade and a bookstore that were clearly not in compliance with the public trust. The State Lands Commission recognized the problem and was not ready to approve non-conforming uses.
Long Beach needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat to move forward. The magic trick came from the head of the State Lands Commission. He offered a land swap much to the dismay of coastal activists around the state.
Land swaps had been used with California public trust lands since the 1920s. Typically, they moved public trust status from one small parcel to an adjacent one in order to help facilitate a variety of public projects. These often served improving access or utility of the public trust lands involved.
But this land swap may as well have been cooked up by Doctor Strangelove. It offered to swap public trust status on five acres of prime coastal property with a median strip on a busy freeway.
But the deck was stacked. Despite strong public opposition, the swap moved forward. The swap opened up the doors to letting any public beach to be developed for condominiums by swapping the public trust for surplus inland properties. Coastal protection advocates were alarmed at the consequences.
California Earth Corps filed suit with the Superior Court to overturn the swap. The motion was denied. Then, with friend-of-the-court support from the National Resources Defense Council, Surfrider and The League for Coastal Protection, Earth Corps appealed. On April 21, the Third Appellate Court overturned the lower court. Long Beach appealed to the California Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, validating the appellate court’s decision.
As a result, the non-conforming land uses in the Long Beach project area need to be removed within ten years. Much of this can likely happen with remodeling and using existing structures for appropriate purposes. Meanwhile, additional legislative action has helped confer stronger protection to our public trust lands.
Don May worked through California Earth Corps to advocated for environmental issues. He recently moved to Hawaii.